Health and Safety are Question Marks
by Melinda Hemmelgarn
The food industry tells consumers that genetically engineered foods are safe. On university campuses, agriculture students learn that such genetically modified organisms (GMO) are both safe and necessary to feed the world. The Council for Biotechnology Information, a biotech industry-supported nonprofit, even created a coloring book to teach children about the many benefits of GMO crops, including improved nutrition.
Most GMO crops have been genetically engineered to withstand spraying with herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready soybeans, or to produce their own pesticides, such as “Bt” corn and cotton. Bill Freese, a science policy analyst at the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, warns us to be leery of simplistic claims that don’t take into account unintended consequences. For example, he points out that, “GMO crops have nothing to do with feeding the world, because almost all genetically engineered crops are corn and soybeans… used to feed livestock in rich countries, or to feed automobiles.” Approximately 40 percent of corn currently is used to make ethanol.
Freese adds, “They don’t increase yields and they don’t increase nutrition.” But GMO crops have led to a staggering increasein herbicide use, putting both farmers and consumers at greater risk for exposure to these toxins and related diseases, according to the Center for Food Safety.
So the question is: Are GMOs the panacea industry wants us to believe, or are they contributing to chronic disease? Here are three claims commonly heard about GMOs, generally made by the biotechnology industry and their funded researchers.
Claim: GMOs are safe.
Fact Check: Little research exists on the long-term effects of consuming GMO foods. According to Douglas Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, safety assessments have left us with significant uncertainties about whether GMO food is safe or not. However, concerns voiced by the Center for Food Safety revolve around potential allergens and toxins from both herbicide and pesticide residues and new genetic material.
New research from the European Union published in Food and Chemical Toxicology adds to growing concerns about the risks. Researchers discovered that rats fed GMO corn and drinking water containing Roundup herbicide experienced negative health effects during their two-year lifespan, including mammary tumors and disabled pituitary function in females, and liver and kidney damage in males. These outcomes were attributed to the endocrine-disrupting effects of Roundup, as well as the genetic makeup of the engineered corn.
What makes this study unique and troubling is that it’s the longest such study period to date. Most studies funded and conducted by industry last just 90 days—not long enough to fully document potential harm.
Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Reports, states in a memo to the American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health, “Unlike all other developed countries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require safety testing for GE [genetically engineered] plants.”
Hansen explains, “In addition to the FDA not requiring any pre-market safety testing, there is virtually no independent safety testing of these crops in the United States, due to intellectual property rights. When farmers buy GE seed in the U.S., they invariably must sign a product stewardship agreement that forbids them from giving such seeds to researchers.” Plus, “Researchers must get permission from the biotech companies before they can do research, which means there is a paucity of independent research.”
The good news is that last June, the AMA recommended mandatory pre-market safety testing to better characterize the potential harms of bioengineered foods.
Claim: GMO crops use fewer pesticides, and those used are safer than most others and breakdown quickly.
Fact Check: Roundup herbicide is increasingly sprayed on a growing number of herbicide-resistant GMO crops, including corn, soy, canola, sugar beets and most recently, alfalfa. By tracking the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s pesticide use data, Charles Benbrook, research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, at Washington State University, discovered that herbicide-resistant crop technology led to a 527-million-pound increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011.
With the growing presence of herbicide-resistant weeds, new GE forms of corn and soybeans have been developed to resist stronger and more dangerous herbicides, such as 2,4-D, one of the two ingredients in Agent Orange, a defoliant used in the Vietnam war. Benbrook projects that these new GMO crops could drive herbicide usage up by about another 50 percent.
According to Warren Porter, Ph.D., a biologist and environmental toxicology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Theo Colborn, Ph.D., president of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, glyphosate, the active chemical ingredient in Roundup, is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it disrupts hormone systems.
Porter says we can expect higher levels of herbicide residues in GMO food crops. A report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that glyphosate is now commonly found in rain, streams and air during the growing season. “Though glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, we know very little about its long-term effects to the environment,” cautions Paul Capel, a USGS chemist.
A Canadian study showing that the Bt toxins from GMO corn are showing up in umbilical cord blood and the blood of pregnant women is another concern. Monsanto claims Bt is harmless and will break down in our digestive tracts. But we have no way of knowing the effect of these toxins on developing fetuses, says Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the Pesticide Action Network.
Claim: GMO labeling isn’t necessary.
Fact Check: Hansen believes that if there are unexpected adverse health effects resulting from consuming GMO foods, a product label would allow people to begin connecting symptoms with foods consumed. Until there is consistent, national GMO food labeling, everyone is just dining in the dark.
Learn more and take action at JustLabelIt.org.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, aka the “Food Sleuth,” is a registered dietitian and award-winning writer and radio host at kopn.org, in Columbia, MO (FoodSleuth@gmail.com). She advocates for organic farmers at Enduring-Image.blogspot.com